Next Stage Of Capitalism: "Our Common Future"


The Yellow Vest movement that started in France in 2018 was initially about the increased cost of fuel for commuters, but quickly broadened to include grievances similar to those in Chile, the cost of living, growing inequality, and a demand for government to stop ignoring the needs of ordinary citizens.

And in the US, the political movement which spawned Trumpism is arguably fuelled by economic inequality just as much as ideology. Among voters who have lost out due to globalisation, the Trump administration won widespread political support for its more closed approaches to global trade, including withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and retaliatory tariffs on Chinese, Indian, Brazilian and Argentinian goods and services imported into the US. Even the US's allies were targeted by this agenda, including Europe, Canada, and Mexico.

While one response to the downsides of capitalism in its current form is for nations to take a defensive posture, seeking to protect themselves by minimising external ties, protectionism "is short-sighted, particularly when it comes to trade," according to Anahita Thoms, head of Baker McKenzie's International Trade Practice in Germany and Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. "While it may bring some temporary benefits, in the long-term it endangers the global economy as a whole and threatens to undo decades of economic progress. It is crucial to maintain investment-friendly, open markets," says Thoms.

A central challenge for governments in the 21st Century will be to work out how to balance these long-term benefits of global trade with the short-term harms that globalisation can bring to local communities affected by low wages or unemployment. Economies cannot become completely divorced from the demands of democratic majorities who seek jobs, affordable housing, education, healthcare and a clean environment. As the Chilean, Yellow Vest and Trumpist movements show, many people are asking for change to the existing system so that it accounts for these needs, rather than only enriching private interests.

In sum, it may be time to reconsider the social contract for capitalism, so that it becomes more inclusive of a broader set of interests beyond individual rights and liberties. This is not impossible. Capitalism has evolved before, and if it is to continue into the longer-term future, it can evolve again.

In recent years, various ideas and proposals have emerged that aim to rewrite capitalism's social contract. What they have in common is the idea that businesses need more varied measures of success than simply profit and growth. In business, there's "conscious capitalism", inspired by the practices of so-called "ethical" brands. In policy, there's "inclusive capitalism", advocated by both the Bank of England and The Vatican, which advocates harnessing "capitalism for good". And in sustainability, there's the idea of "doughnut economics", a theory proposed by economist and author Kate Raworth, which suggests that it's possible to thrive economically as a society while also staying within social and planetary boundaries.

Then there's the "Five Capitals" model articulated by Jonathan Porritt, the author of Capitalism As If The World Matters. Porritt calls for the integration of five pillars of human capital – natural, human, social, manufactured, and financial capital – into existing economic models.

One tangible example of where companies are beginning to embrace the Five Capitals is the B-Corporation movement. Certified companies sign up to a legal obligation to consider "the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment". Their ranks now include major corporations such as Danone, Patagonia, and Ben & Jerry's (which is owned by Unilever).

This approach has become increasingly mainstream, reflected in a 2019 statement released by over 180 corporate CEOs redefining "the purpose of a corporation". For the first time, CEOs representing Wal-Mart, Apple, JP Morgan Chase, Pepsi, and others acknowledged that they must redefine the role of business in relation to society and the environment.

Their statement proposes that companies must do more than deliver profits to their shareholders. In addition, they must invest in their employees and contribute to the improvement of the human, natural and social elements of capital that Porritt refers to in his model, rather than the sole focus on financial capital.

In a recent interview with Yahoo Finance on the future of capitalism, the executive chairman of Best Buy, Hubert Joly, said that "what has happened is that for 30 years, from the 1980s to 10 years ago, we’ve had this singular focus on profits that has been excessive and has caused a lot of these issues. We need to unwind a bit of these 30 years. If we have a refoundation of business, it can be a refoundation of capitalism as well... I think this can be done, this has to be done."

More than three decades ago, the United Nations Brundtland Commission wrote in "Our Common Future" that there was ample evidence that social and environmental impacts are relevant and need to be incorporated into development models. It is now obvious that these issues must also be considered within the social contract underpinning capitalism, so that it is more inclusive, holistic and integrated with basic human values.

Ultimately, it is worth remembering that citizens in a capitalist, liberal democracy are not powerless. Collectively, they can support companies aligned with their beliefs, and continuously demand new laws and policies which transform the competitive landscape of corporations so that they might improve their practices.

When Adam Smith was observing nascent industrial capitalism in 1776, he could not foresee just how much it would transform our societies today. So it follows that we might be similarly blind to what capitalism could look like in another two centuries. However, that does not mean we should not ask how it might evolve into something better in the nearer term. The future of capitalism and our planet depend on it.

Author: Matthew Wilburn King, BBC


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